3rd Sunday of Easter
Acts 9.1-6; Revelation 5.11-end; John 21.1-19
THE brilliant Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan has a flair for observing family life and the quirks of human relationships. His novel Our Fathers gave an evocative insight to gains and losses in the re-building of 1960s tower blocks in Glasgow.
More recently, he has written about guilt. This pervades Be near me, O’Hagan’s brave exploration of suppressed sexuality and its consequences for a Roman Catholic priest. It also features in an article about family life he entitled “Guilt: a memoire”. His childhood seems to have been characterised by a sense that “we had probably done something wrong.”
Sadly, much of this sense of wrong-doing was fuelled by religious zeal. O’Hagan describes his grandmother, a devout Roman Catholic, as being able to “gut a herring in four seconds”. Coming from a novelist, this suggests that fish were not the only victims of O’Hagan’s grandmother: people might also be gutted with her sharp tongue.
To a sensitive grandchild, this pious woman communicated Christianity as a religion in which our failings are “more interesting than our virtues”. In this regard, Scottish Catholicism and Calvinism seem to conspire together and become confederate against the human race. Edwin Muir describes, in his poem The Incarnate One, the capacity of Protestantism for instilling guilt:
The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.
I suspect that this image of an angry God, of fearsome purity and justice, lurks somewhere in the imagination of many of us as a source of unresolved guilt. The image has its origins in fear: fear that the dark secrets of our lives will be found out and punished.
By way of escape, if we persevere with Christian faith, we seek the image of a loving, tender God who is indulgently kind to us. There are dangers here, however. One of them is the introduction of an unhelpful distinction between the persons of the Trinity. This sees God the Father as the one we should fear, sometimes characterised as the angry God of the Old Testament. In contrast, Jesus is our friend, gentle and forgiving. He seems to be God, but under control.
This is perhaps a crude parody, but it is, none the less, a theological distortion into which we can easily slip. The record of the Gospels, and the Old Testament scriptures from which they draw, is very different, however. Today’s reading from the epilogue of St John’s Gospel suggests a more balanced view of the identity and character of Jesus.
First, Jesus is not immediately recognised by the disciples when he appears to them. The reference that Muir makes to mystery as the style of God’s self-revealing is underlined here. As in the encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, and with Cleopas and his companion on the way to Emmaus, revelation is not necessarily obvious or predictable. Mystery is part of the character of Jesus, as it is of the Father, to whom Jesus directs us.
Second, the narrative of revelation draws on the past, as it discloses the present and the future. John’s account of this fishing trip seems to echo a story that Luke places back at the opening of the public ministry of Jesus in Galilee (Luke 5.1-11). In both Gospels, what follows is an account of the nature of Christian discipleship.
For Luke, this is journeying with Jesus to death and resurrection in Jerusalem. John sees discipleship as a challenge to abandon self-determination in response to the command “Follow me” (John 21.19). In both cases, Jesus disturbs those whom he engages: that is the uncomfortable nature of friendship with him.
Third, the encounter with Jesus is deep and personal; it is also located unavoidably in the context of the community of faith. For Luke, the miraculous catch of fish is part of the vocation process of gathering the Twelve. For John, it provides a symbolic statement about the universality of the Christian mission: the net of the Church catches and holds all the fish and is not broken.
If we are to resist the temptation to domesticise Jesus, because the awesomeness of his being God is too disturbing, then today’s Gospel challenges us to come to terms with unresolved guilt.
The mystery of the nature of God tells us that God is always known as love that knows us intimately but is greater than we can imagine or repay. Here is love that is terrifyingly beyond our control. It is also love that draws us inescapably into relationship with other people who are equally loved by God. But most of all we are challenged to understand how perfect love casts out our fear of guilt.
“Do you love me?” asks Jesus. The guilt of Peter’s betrayal has not been hidden: it has been repented of and forgiven. True penitence has no fear and needs no cover-up. It is the condition of discipleship in which we joyfully approach God with confidence.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Whitby.
Acts 9: 1-6
1Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
11I, John, looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might
for ever and ever!’
14And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.
1Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God. After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’